A few anecdotes and events
during Catherine's reign
I "New Russia" and the journey to Crimea
The journey to the Crimea, which Catherine made in 1787, was a triumphal progress of incredible magnificence, marking a splendid climax in her reign. It was intended to impress not only Turkey, but the whole civilized world with the wealth and power of the Empress of Russia, and as planned by Potemkin it more than succeeded. But, while the courts of Europe received prompt reports about this magnificent journey, news of the Russian people percolated¹ more slowly. At this time, in fact, a severe famine afflicted the country. Hungry beggars swarmed into Moscow and other towns in search of alms² and food, and the governors swept them away from all points where the. Empress and her party might set eyes on them.
The imperial journey was announced at the beginning of 1786, when it was stated that the Empress would travel south to be crowned Queen of Tauris and protectress of the Tatars. An army would escort her, and the solemnities and splendours, costing many millions of rubles, would exceed anything that had ever been known. Potemkin had long cherished this project and had been working feverishly on it. As the time approached, however, his plans had to be scaled down and the coronation project was dropped, for the Crimea was in a state of unrest with skirmishing, developing at times into serious engagements,
¹ To percolate: to permeate; penetrate gradually.
² Alms: charitable donations of money or goods to the poor or needy.
between Tatars and Russians. Nevertheless, even in its modified form the imperial progress and the entertainments at each halt amazed Europe, where prodigal expenditure on such a scale was unknown.
Catherine set out from Tsarskoe Selo on 18 January 1787. She herself travelled with Madame Protassov ... in an enormous sledge¹ containing several compartments and drawn by thirty horses, while a convoy of 150 sledges accompanied her. Gliding over the crisp snow, their progress was swift and comfortable. At every halt hundreds fresh horses and teams of smiths, saddlers, and carpenters stood ready to see to the needs of the party and speed them on their way. By night fires at frequent intervals marked their route, but usually they stopped at the palace of the local governor, whom Potemkin had equipped in advance to accommodate the imperial party. In districts where there was no suitable palace or mansion, he had had one built and furnished magnificently for these few hours of use.
On 9 February, three weeks after her departure, Catherine arrived in Kiev, the ancient capital of Russia. Here Potemkin joined her. He had travelled ahead to ensure that all preparations were complete, and now in Kiev where the party had to wait several weeks until the ice broke on the Dnieper, making the river navigable for their onward journey by galley², he had arranged every possible comfort and entertainment for them.
The French, Austrian, and English ambassadors each had a private palace with a host of liveried³ servants, private coaches and horses, and they lived in splendour. Comte de Ségur, the witty French courtier whom Catherine found so entertaining, was a special guest, and he was in good spirits because of the commercial treaty just concluded between his country and Russia. In Kiev, too, a crowd of pro-Russian Polish nobles, chief
¹ Sledge: a vehicle mounted on runners, drawn by horses or dogs, for transporting people or goods, esp. over snow.
² Galley: any of various kinds of ship propelled by oars or sails used in ancient or medieval times as a warship or as a trader.
³ Liveried: (esp. of servants or footmen) wearing livery.
among them Princess Sapieha and Lubomirsky, and the Potockis and the Branitskis, paid homage¹ to Catherine, who also gave a warm welcome to the two beautiful nieces of Potemkin, the Countesses Branicka and Skavronskaya. The gathering of so many nobles, both Russian and Polish, together with the dignitaries of church and army, all pressing to be received by the Empress and to take part in the fabulous entertainments, transformed the ancient city.
Only Potemkin was absent. Whether from eccentricity or weariness of the pomp and ceremony, for which he was so much responsible, or, as is more probable, because the strong religious mood and tradition of Kiev infected him, he with- drew to the Pecherskaya Lavra, the oldest monastery in Russia, which was renowned for its sanctity². There he went into semi-retirement. He gave audience occasionally, but preferred to live in private praying, fasting and making his devotions during Passion week preceding Easter. He was, nevertheless, still in charge of all arrangements and a stream of messengers went out from the monastery, bearing his personal instructions for the further stages of the journey.
It was an exceptionally severe winter and the Dnieper was ice-bound until May. Catherine and her party at last embarked in galleys, a fleet of which had been specially built on Potemkin's orders. Seven enormous galleys, painted red and gold, headed the stately procession down river, and seventy-three others followed. More than 3,000 sailors, wearing special picturesque uniforms, manned this fleet. Each galley was fitted out with every luxury, even to the extent of having its own orchestra, and as the fleet moved southwards, the music floated over the water to the crowds who had gathered from near and far to line the river banks and watch this fantastic spectacle.
The Prince de Ligne, the gallant Austrian soldier, who, like
¹ Homage: a public show of respect or honour towards someone or something (esp. in the phrases pay or do homage to). 2. (in feudal society) the act of respect and allegiance made by a vassal to his lord.
² Sanctity: the condition of being sanctified; holiness.
Potemkine, engraving by James Walker
his friend, Ségur, so delighted Catherine, named the galleys "Cleopatra's fleet". It was a fitting title. The fireworks and illuminations, the floral decorations and triumphal arches and the galley fleet itself were all built around the Empress, who in her charm and gaiety and her love of life seemed to those present to challenge comparison with the fabulous Queen of the Nile. (...)
The fleet anchored at Kremenchug, where Catherine watched manoeuvres by 12,000 men, wearing the new uniforms introduced by Potemkin to give his troops greater comfort and efficiency. Thence they travelled on to the site of Ekaterinoslav, designated the capital of New Russia. The site was at an elevated part of the Dnieper bank not far distant from the rapids, and there Catherine, after prayers and blessings pronounced by the newly appointed archbishop, laid the foundation stone of the church which was to be the first building of the new city.
Finally Catherine with her large party reached Kherson, one of the goals of the journey. Here Potemkin was able to show her the town which he had founded and built in eight years. Already it was considerable in size with an impressive admiralty building, a busy harbour and a dockyard where a 66-gun warship and a 40-gun frigate were launched in her presence.
Catherine inspected the city thoroughly and was so strongly impressed that she wrote to Grimm that "the labours of Prince Potemkin have made this town and this region, where before the peace (with Turkey) there was not one hut, a flourishing country and city, which will grow richer with each year." There was one further detail, typical of Potemkin, which must have appealed to Catherine. This was a signpost which she saw by the eastern gate of the town, bearing the inscription: "This way leads to Byzantium." (...)
Another incident that unsettled many members of her suite at the outset of this Crimean visit was the sudden appearance of a large detachment of Tatars, mounted and colourful in their exotic dress. These Tatars, appearing so suddenly and surrounding the carriages as an escort and guard of honour, made [some] nervous. For centuries these Tatar horsemen had been the bitter
enemies of the Russians, and they had been subdued so recently, that there seemed some danger in allowing them to act as an escort. Catherine, however, was poised and tranquil as usual. Potemkin had arranged this guard of honour and he had complete faith that he would not expose her to real danger. In any case he had near at hand an army of 153,000 men.
With this escort, Catherine made an impressive entry into Bakhchisrai, the ancient city of the Khans, whose palace became her residence. Here, too, Potemkin had arranged spectacles which dazzled and astonished the whole party. The oriental scene with its colours, minarets and bazaars, the strange discordant call to prayer of the muezzins, the gorgeous robes of the Tatar princes and the sensual luxury of the Khan's palace with its fountains, cool tiled courtyards, and fragrance of orange groves, all combined to intoxicate Catherine and her guests. Only a short while ago she had been surrounded by snow and chilled by the icy cold of St. Petersburg's winter, and now in the Crimea the heat, the rich green foliage and the citrus fruits seemed unreal. In fact, the whole of her Crimean tour, as she herself wrote, "so strongly resembles the dreams of the Thousand and One Nights" that it stood in her memory as one of the greatest experiences of her life.
The climax of this visit was the excursion to the coast when Potemkin dramatically revealed to her from the heights near Inkerman the new town and harbour of Sevastopol. Forty men-of-war were drawn up in the harbour and, as Catherine caught her first sight of the harbour, the ships at once fired salvoes in her honour. Heightening the impact of this scene on all present was the knowledge that Constantinople itself was within two days sailing, and with the Black Sea stretching before her, it was as though she had already conquered Turkey.
After looking down for some time on the crowded harbour of Sevastopol, Catherine took from her pocket the miniature of Peter the Great which she always carried when travelling, and said to the Prince de Ligne who was with her: "What
would he say, what would he do, if he were here?" It was a rhetorical¹ question, but no doubt Peter would have acknowledged her achievement.
Potemkin was the hero of the day and indeed of the whole journey. Catherine frequently expressed gratitude for his work and, as she wrote to Grimm, "his exceeding great industry and intelligence." It was, however, Ségur who expressed the astonishment of the whole party at Sevastopol. "It seemed incredible to us," he wrote, "that at a distance of eight hundred leagues² from the capital and in a country so recently conquered, Prince Potemkin had found it possible in two years to raise such an establishment, to build a town, construct a fleet, to erect forts, and to assemble such a large number of inhabitants: this was truly prodigal activity."
The return journey was speedy. Catherine halted at Poltava and before her eyes an army of 50,000 men re-enacted the battle in which Peter the Great had routed Charles XII and finally broken Swedish power. "This grand and magnificent spectacle worthily crowned her journey, as romantic as it was historic," wrote Ségur.
At Kharkov, Potemkin took leave of Catherine to return to the south where he still had so much to do, and their parting moved them both. Potemkin had organized the whole journey as an expression of his great love for her as a woman and as his Empress. She indeed felt and returned his love; she was overwhelmed by his homage and her gratitude to him was boundless. She showered gifts on him, created him Prince of Tauris, and after their parting she wrote constantly to him.
Extracts from Catherine the Great by Ian Grey
Greenwood Press, Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, USA
¹ Rhetorical: concerned with effect or style rather than content or meaning.
²League: an obsolete unit of distance of varying length. It is commonly equal to 3 miles.